Deconstructing a Common Cause of Unbelief

In my interactions with friends who’ve turned away from Christianity, I sometimes notice patterns – certain arguments and narratives that are common among those who have “de-converted”. I realize this is purely anecdotal, but I wanted to take some time to address one such argument. The following quote is taken (with permission) from a friend of mine during one of our discussions on Facebook:

“Where I began to shift from religion to atheism occurred when I was comparing the competing claims of different religions with the evidence available to me. When there are multiple religions which all share the belief that they are reasonable, purposeful, and do not demand empirical or scientific proof — then it is awfully difficult, at least for me, to establish why I should believe one religion over another. When I watch all of these people in the world who have different beliefs but share the idea of “faith”, and when I heard about all of the people in history who had a multitude of different religions but shared the idea of “faith”, then it is very tough for me [to] just have “faith”. If many religions can have a reasonable, purposeful belief that doesn’t demand empirical or scientific proof, then what’s the point of believing in any of their claims? For me, I thought it was more likely that all religions, by believing based on “faith”, were equally likely to be wrong – once I examined the nature of “faith” and the way it operates in many different religious traditions and throughout history.” 

We can summarize this line of thinking as follows:

If 0 ≤ C ≤ 1

(where “C” is a person’s initial, subjectively-determined “probability of Christianity being true”)

And 0 ≤ C+W ≤ 1

(where “W” adjusts for the presence of other world religions, and “C+W” represents a person’s subjectively-determined “probability of Christianity being true” when considering the existence of these other religions)

Then C+W < C
And W < 0

In other words, this argument claims that the existence of numerous other world religions serves as net evidence AGAINST Christianity being true. Thus, “W” has some arbitrary but negative value.

The problem with this argument, as I see it, is that there is no compelling, objective reason why “W” should be negative. In fact, I believe one can make a convincing case for “W” being positive. That is, the existence of numerous other world religions actually serves as evidence FOR Christianity being true.

To understand this, we first have to recognize that each religion must be studied and evaluated on its own terms. The mere existence of 1.6 billion Muslims in the world doesn’t serve as evidence against Christianity any more than it serves as evidence against atheism, agnosticism, or any other belief system.

I would argue that the presence of so many religious traditions around the world actually points to the likelihood that there is something more to our existence than can be explained materialistically. It demonstrates mankind’s innate craving for something “more” – some kind of experience beyond the mere physical.

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” -CS Lewis

“If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.” –CS Lewis

On Christianity, it makes perfect sense to find so many different religions and spiritual beliefs throughout the world. Man has been created with a spiritual craving which only God can fill, and absent a relationship with the One True God, he may well invent his own deity (or deities) to worship.

It makes no sense at all, however, to conclude that the existence of so many distinct (yet fundamentally similar) religions somehow serves as a logical argument against any one of them.

A Few Clarifications

The skeptic reading this blog might take issue with some of my starting premises (namely, the exclusive focus on Christianity). They might propose, for example, that an imaginary individual assigns values of 0.6 and 0.4 to the “probability of God existing” and the “probability of God not existing”, respectively. At this point, the competing claims of individual faiths and religions would divide that 0.6 probability into dozens of much smaller probabilities, leaving disbelief in God as the largest remaining value.

However, I want to reiterate that this post is addressed primarily to the former Christian who “de-converted” in part because of the competing claims of other religions, as well as to the current Christian who might be struggling with the same issue. Because from the Christian’s perspective, the mere existence of other religions should not give us any logical reason to doubt our own faith.

Finally, I want to emphatically dispel the idea that our faith should be based on nothing more than a numerical “probability of Christianity being true”. I use that terminology to illustrate a larger point, but our hope in Christ is predicated on a bold leap of faith. A faith supported by solid evidence, certainly…but not something that can be boiled down to mere numbers, either.

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26 thoughts on “Deconstructing a Common Cause of Unbelief

  1. Matt,
    What I teach my students is what Chesterton called the democracy of the dead. What he meant by that is that if all humans had a vote, then the overwhelming majority of them would believe in something beyond the physical world. It is spirituality undefined, but nevertheless there. To believe that so many have been so wrong about something so crucial is possible, but is it realisitic?

    • That’s a very good point. I don’t see how it would be unrealistic either. Great post.

      OT: I know a few people who have walked away after proclaiming faith. I always wonder if their initial conversion was true and that they are just “backsliding” now. I hate to see it happen but it’s a reality and something I think going forward as believers, we should be ready to minister to those people. You gave me some valuable insight on this. Thanks.

    • Coach D: Excellent point about Chesterton and the “democracy of the dead”! Some might consider it an argumentum ad populum…but that’s a double-edged sword. If it’s a logical fallacy to say “many people think this way, therefore it might be credible”, then what are we to make of someone who says, “many people think this way, therefore they’re probably all wrong”?

      Larry: You also raise a good point about differentiating between those who “backslide” and those who “talked the talk” but never made a genuine faith commitment to begin with. It’s relevant, because a genuine believer’s evaluation of other religions will look dramatically different than that of someone who isn’t committed to begin with (it’s the difference between my initial argument and the one described in my “clarifications” section). It also makes a difference, as you pointed out, in how we might carry on a dialogue with these different groups of people. The main reason I didn’t address this in the post was because I didn’t want it to appear that I was questioning the previous sincerity of my friend’s faith (whom I quoted), specifically.

  2. “To understand this, we first have to recognize that each religion must be studied and evaluated on its own terms.”

    Great point.

    I agree with you and the commenters. If it’s not too goofy, I once again respond to your C. S. Lewis-quoting entry with another C. S. Lewis quote:

    If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religious of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=p1Pbhy6SugwC&lpg=PP1&dq=mere%20christianity&pg=PA35#v=onepage&q&f=false

    • Excellent quote, haha! Lewis is certainly a quotable man.

      Actually, I think I might add this one to the original post…

  3. From what I understand about my own search of spirituality, religion and faith, the decision to choose a religion or belief structure is simply not something that logic alone can make. The final decision to choose Christianity or any other religion/belief structure is, in large part, something that resonates as truth inside no matter how researched the decision.

    Logic is merely a tool to support the foundation of truth inside that we all feel about our own spirituality.

  4. all very good food for thought. i would take it one step further, though … building on the point that people share a hunger of sorts for something more. that is hard wired into us, and even the most intelligent animal doesnt seem to have this (unles its just so obvious to them that they wonder at how difficult we make it). there is in us a sort of knowing that defies logic, maybe is a logic of its own, that there is something more.

    matt, i would point out that though faith in God may not be able to be boiled down to mere numbers, on the other hand the mathmatical perfection of the universe is pretty compelling evidence against sheer randomness. i have yet to see true randomness that itself isnt by design.

    and that brings me to one more point. is it ‘faith’ alone that the many religions have in common? or is it ‘faith in something beyond oneself’ that they share, i think it is the latter. what is faith, if it isnt in something or someone? faith has to have a reason to exist.
    k☼

  5. We debate about posibilities all the time. We see the stars and wonder a lot of things. But our star, the sun, we experience the presence and absence of its warmth, light and power and therefore we never question the suns existance. God is the same way. When we experience the presence and absence of love as it relates to Him, we then never again question the existance of God as reality. Where ther is no experience there will always be questions of existance.

  6. Hi Matt,

    I don’t see where you addressed the quoted argument in question. I read him as arguing that all religions are of roughly equivalent (low) credibility, due to the credulity of religious believers in general; hence the repeated use of the word “faith.” As such, he reports that this makes it difficult to adopt one particular set of these beliefs in particular. And this seems like a reasonable approach as far as it goes. What remains to be argued is that religions are of a single class of credibility- that no one has considerably greater evidence than another. But he does not make that argument that you attribute to him- ie. that the existence of other religions falsifies Christianity, full stop. In actuality, his would be more akin to the argument that the existence of other religions equal in strength to Christianity ought to make us agnostics with regard to the truth of Christianity (and all other religions). Or, these religions now have a lower prior probability of being true.

    Perhaps a better challenge to theistic belief would be the apparent sincerity of differing religious experiences. For example, no religion is without believers who (as per their self-reports) have experienced intense sensations and experiences which confirm their particular religious beliefs. This diversity does pose a challenge to the veracity of any one religious experience, and so far as I can tell, Christianity does not have the resources to deal with this problem in any satisfactory way. Would we really expect a Muslim to intensely experience the fullness of the presence of Allah and Mohammed if Christianity were true?

    • “I read him as arguing that all religions are of roughly equivalent (low) credibility, due to the credulity of religious believers in general; hence the repeated use of the word “faith.” As such, he reports that this makes it difficult to adopt one particular set of these beliefs in particular.”

      This individual, however, claims to have previously been a Christian – fully convinced of the truth of Christianity in particular. GIVEN this presumption, I believe the arguments I made are sound.

      “But he does not make that argument that you attribute to him- ie. that the existence of other religions falsifies Christianity, full stop.”

      More accurately, the argument that I attributed to him was that the existence of other religions decreases the likelihood of Christianity being true (given as C+W<C, NOT as C+W=0). No full stops. 🙂

  7. I like what God told Job…who are YOU…to question me? And I like what Jesus said, unless you become like a little child…you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven.

  8. This individual, however, claims to have previously been a Christian – fully convinced of the truth of Christianity in particular. GIVEN this presumption, I believe the arguments I made are sound.

    They are; unfortunately, they don’t actually address the quoted argument. More below:

    More accurately, the argument that I attributed to him was that the existence of other religions decreases the likelihood of Christianity being true (given as C+W<C, NOT as C+W=0). No full stops.

    I think it would be more accurate to read him as arguing that the existence of other equally-plausible religions removes the presumption in favour of Christianity. But this is an argument for agnosticism, not atheism, such that the existence of other religions could not decrease the likelihood of Christianity being true if the likelihood of Christianity were 0.5 or lower.

    In this instance, a person was a Christian because they had a presumption in favour of Christianity (say, 0.8), but when he/she came to believe that other religions had equal plausibility, that presumption was lost. This is because plausibility ought to confer presumption, but we can’t have favourable presumptions toward contradictory beliefs; consequently, the plausibility of them all are reduced to 0.5 at the very most.

    It’s hard to see how this particular line of reasoning is logically flawed.

  9. Having been raised in the atheistic faith I can attest that there was always a sadness in my heart that God didn’t exist. I knew that if he did that would be a good thing. I finally overcame my childhood religion and became a Christian. It hasn’t been an easy triip but I sure appreciate the company of the Trinity.

  10. The lure of Postmodernism to construct or destruct what they want is extremely powerful. It is a pity that we fill the void with other deities instead of Jesus, His requirements are “lighter” than the others. But maybe that is the problem He is to good to be true.

  11. I would have said much the same thing as a Christian, and I still mostly agree as an atheist. Lewis is right, and you are right, that Christianity lets one take a more liberal view of religion in general, or of other particular religions. I think there’s also a similar dynamic with ethics, and the meaningfulness of life. Christianity lets you affirm lots of what people think and feel whereas atheism, in my opinion, does not.

    That being said, I still think that the presence of other world religions does make Christianity seem less likely to be true. This becomes especially acute when widening the frame from religions that happen to have lots of adherents at present to the thousands of religions today and in the past, and the infinite logical possibilities beyond that.

    Christianity is a coherent and logically possible system, and enables one to affirm big parts of other religions, and of conscience, and of intuitions of meaning. But… the same can be said for infinite other systems. So how we need something to distinguish Christianity. And unfortunately, I don’t know of anything that gets the job done.

    • My short answer would be that Christianity is distinguished already just by being coherent and logically possible. I’m not sure any of the alternatives can claim that distinction. I’m sure materialist atheism can’t. Have you read C. S. Lewis’s Miracles?

      By the way, if you feel like talking about it, how did you become an atheist?

    • How do you think that materialist atheism fails to be coherent and logically possible? I think it fails to validate or justify many of our feelings and intuitions, and is therefore quite unpleasant (for those who realize this, and are honest about it)—but that it is nonetheless quite coherent. Being unpleasant is obviously distinct from being false or incoherent.

      I have read Miracles, and most of Lewis’s nonfiction. I’m a fan, but no longer find him to be conclusive.

      As for how I became an atheist, I explain that on my blog. Details are spread around, but here is an overview.

    • Ivan,

      Thank you for sharing. I’m sorry to hear about your current situation; that must be awful.

      I perceive that you and I are very similar in some ways, not least in our affinity for C. S. Lewis. I would love to talk with you more about these things, whether here or elsewhere—I don’t know whether, beyond a certain point, it will become unfair to our host, or inconvenient for you, to maintain a conversation in the comments on this blog entry. I see that both you and I make our e-mail addresses available on our blogs. In the meantime, proceeding here:

      I think your overview of why you have become an atheist makes sense and makes good points. For now, instead of addressing them, I’ll try to answer your question.

      You said, “Being unpleasant is obviously distinct from being false or incoherent.”

      Agreed.

      You asked, “How do you think that materialist atheism fails to be coherent and logically possible?”

      I won’t do Lewis’s argument justice if I try to summarize most of the book Miracles in just a couple of paragraphs here, but I’ll try anyway: Under materialism, the physical energy and matter of this world are all that exist, right? So everything that happens follows deterministically from the causes that preceded it, in such a way that if you had enough information, you could predict the unfolding of all the rest of history until the heat death or other eventual end (and you could say which end it would be) of the universe.

      But for us to engage in logic and hold beliefs (including materialism), our minds must be to some extent independent of the physical events of this world. Under materialism, they can’t be; therefore a person cannot consistently hold a belief in materialism.

      In other words, under materialism, our minds are entirely contained within our brains; every thought we have, including every logical judgment we make, is a mere biochemical event, which happens as it physically must happen and could not have happened any other way. Thus our logical conclusions are entirely untrustworthy; you might even say that it is nonsense to claim that we engage in logic or draw conclusions about the world at all.

      Some offer an alternative understanding of quantum physics under which the universe is not deterministic but random, or incorporates some element of randomness. Under this theory, some of the preceding paragraphs are indeed stated incorrectly, but not in a way that helps materialism escape from the difficulty I’ve presented. If the biochemical events that are our thoughts are to some extent random rather than determined, they are nevertheless not independent in the sense that they would have to be. They are random events, and we have no reason to believe that our beliefs would bear any relation to the truth.

    • Thank you, Chillingworth.

      To start at the end, yes, it is too late for you to talk me out of law school, ha ha. I begin this fall. But don’t worry—I am well aware of the terrible legal job market. But I’ll be attending a top school that will afford both great prospects for the big firm job I’ll shoot for to start off, and also a generous loan forgiveness plan if I end up in something less lucrative. And I enjoy the sorts of analysis, reading, and writing involved in law so much that it really does appear to be a great career path for me. It sounds like you may not be having the best time of it? Well, I wish you luck.

      I may need to add Miracles to my rereading list. I definitely plan to reread Mere Christianity this summer, but beyond that, it’s hard to decide between competing demands.

      I’m afraid that responding to what you wrote about Miracles may do both you and Lewis less justice than you did him (for want of space), but I’ll still offer a couple thoughts.

      I think that randomness, which you brought up, in one important piece of the puzzle. But yes, I definitely agree that this can do limited work if we’re seeking to legitimize our thoughts.

      Another important piece of the puzzle is emergent properties. This isn’t something I’ve given much thought to or read much about, but the general idea is that sometimes when we move to higher levels of analysis, new properties emerge. So for example, in historical analysis, properties like contingency or chance emerge, and play prominent roles, whereas at lower, constituent levels of analysis, like physics, they don’t seem to. Again, I admit that I haven’t given this much thought, but it seems like this is an important and relevant issue.

      Also, I want to push back on your talk of independence a bit. I’m not sure that that is a justified demand. Maybe the universe is indeed completely deterministic, and our thoughts are completely dependent upon, and reducible to, the law of physics. This is a weird and troubling thought, for sure—you’ll get no argument from me there. But would it necessarily undermine the truth of our thoughts? A priori, isn’t it possible that our thoughts are totally determined by physics, and were even at the instant of the Big Bang, but they nonetheless often contain substantial truth? It seems like the tension with determinism may not really lie with true beliefs, but rather with agency and responsibility for belief. Determinism certainly challenges our natural and intuitive conceptions of our thought processes, but it may not actually challenge the truth of our thoughts. Maybe?

      Lastly, this takes a bit of a leap away from our current line of discussion, but I think it’s still germane. I’ll throw it out there, and we can begin making the connections explicit if our conversation heads that way. I accept the scientific consensus on evolution, and believe that that is how we humans came to be. One thing that I think follows from this is that we did not evolve for rational thought. Our brains are built not primarily for finding truth, but rather for surviving and reproducing. This does involve a substantial amount of finding truth—e.g. what is truly edible and what is truly dangerous. But when we move away from such immediate survival concerns to abstraction and philosophy and religion, we’re really doing something a bit strange and unnatural. Or rather, thinking about such things truthfully and rationally is something strange and unnatural.

      This seems to match up quite well with what we actually see in the world. People are rational enough to survive just fine. But when you start looking critically at religious and ethical beliefs, for instance, people believe all sorts of muddled contradictory things. When emotions run high, reason almost always takes a back seat, and shuts up. Our dominant political discourse is an inane shouting match. Etc., etc., etc. In contrast, where can we see progress made, and actual persuasion and consensus? Where we use crutches and tools to enable better rationality, such as formalizing arguments, submitting to peer review, and regimenting observation, measurement, and repeatable experiments.

  12. Pingback: Alister McGrath on the Demand for Proof | Well Spent Journey

  13. The proliference of differing religious views today does not mean that these differences have always been there. There is a time element as well. There have not always been as many competing views. Islam, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and a host of other belief systems have come into being since the time of Christ. New religions are always being developed or proposed. There are more today then there were yesterday. This does not make one belief system less true just because another belief system has been added. The newer belief system has the burden of proof to distinguish itself as the more plausible explanation. So the existence of so many religions just goes to proove that truth is diminished over time. It does not proove that there is more truth to choose from.

  14. Pingback: Three r/atheism Images in Need of Debunking | Well Spent Journey

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